PLUS PHIL HARTMAN’S GREATEST ROLE:

Kiki’s Delivery Service & The Gift Economy (Houston Coley, Dec 28, 2023, Rabbit Room)

For what it is, I don’t think Kiki’s Delivery Service is even being entirely intentional about its depiction of the concept, but perhaps the notions of reciprocal gifts and hospitality are marginally more baked into the culture of Japan than much of the west. Kiki is a character who survives and thrives on gifts—gifts which draw her further into relationship with others.

The opening 10 minutes of the film feature two major gifts: Kiki’s iconic flying broomstick, which belonged to her mother and is said to “never lose its way, even in a storm,” and Kiki’s bright red portable radio, which is gifted by her father. As Kiki sets off into the brave world, broomstick coasting on the breeze and radio blasting ‘Rouge no Dengon’ by Yumi Matsutoya, she is already resting on the bed of generosity from her parents.

Many other gifts follow. When it begins to thunderstorm in the middle of the night, Kiki drops down into an empty boxcar and sleeps in the hay, serendipitously carried by the train to her next destination. When she arrives in the seaside town of Koriko, after wandering around aimlessly for an afternoon and being refused housing at various hotels because she’s not an adult, Kiki happens to meet the pregnant baker Osono. Osono is running out of her bakery holding a pacifier belonging to a woman and her baby who left moments ago—and in Kiki’s first act of generosity with her magic, she offers to fly the pacifier down to them at the bottom of the hill, leaving Osono gaping with wonder at her abilities.

Kiki’s singular gift—using her flying broomstick to deliver a small object to a woman who needs it—prompts Osono to invite her inside and offer her the hospitality of a cup of coffee…along with a bowl of milk for Kiki’s black cat Jiji. After hearing Kiki’s situation, she also generously extends the first major gift Kiki receives in Koriko: she offers to let her have the spare bedroom next to her bakery to stay for free, even if it’s caked in baking flour. Kiki, in turn, offers on numerous occasions to help out around the bakery.

Kiki’s ability to use her gift to give is what prompts her to consider a delivery service in the first place, reasoning that “I have one skill—flying—so I thought a delivery service was a good idea.” Kiki suggests using the money she’s saved up to pay for a phone for the delivery service, but Osono subsequently (and generously) says she’ll allow Kiki to use her phone and her bakery as the headquarters instead…and even spreads the word to her friends about what Kiki is doing.

As Kiki’s delivery service gains popularity, the concept of gifts becomes central to her life. The first thing Kiki delivers is a birthday gift, and when she returns from the delivery, Osono’s husband has kindly crafted her own “delivery service” signage for her from wood.

If you haven’t clued into it already, many of the characters in Kiki’s Delivery Service are just all-around lovely. I remember the first time I watched the movie, I was anxiously waiting for the moment when the “twist villain” would show up, more in line with western animation, and introduce the necessity of contrived conflict into the story. But the delightful thing about Kiki’s Delivery Service is that there are no real villains; just people being kind and generous to each other, and sometimes misunderstanding or getting burned out and nervous. It’s one of the reasons the movie is a comfort watch, and one of the reasons it’s a touching example of gift economy.

THE ENTIRETY OF MORALITY IS THE DENIAL OF THE SELF:

The Profoundly Humane Vision of “Groundhog Day” (Stephen Turley, February 1st, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

And so, Phil interprets his situation as only Phil Connors could: He convinces himself that he is a god. But Phil was soon to learn that there was nothing godlike about him. You see, throughout the movie, Phil would turn a corner where an elderly homeless man would be begging for money, a man Phil avoided as if he were a leper. But on one cold night, Phil decides to walk the old man to a local hospital where he can get warm, and shortly after arriving at the hospital, the old man dies. Deeply moved by this, Phil would spend each day with the old man, [in fact he calls him ‘dad’ and ‘pop’], feeding him at restaurants, keeping him warm, trying to get him healthy, but to no avail. Every night, despite Phil’s administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the old man would pass away. Alas, there were just some things that he could not change.

And it is at this point in Phil’s experience that he begins to discover that what makes life worth living is not immediate gratification, or moral autonomy, or flippant cynicism, or self-deification, but rather encountering those things that give meaning and purpose to our lives. He begins to read great literature and poetry, he begins to learn the piano and ice sculpting, he helps the locals in matters great and small, including catching a boy who falls from a tree every day. In fact, all of Punxsutawney is transformed by the caring attention he gives to those in need. And his affections for Rita transform into a love without reservation and without any hope of his affection ever being returned. In short, the perpetuity of February 2 became an arena in which Phil’s humanity was awakened. And the result is that Rita falls in love with him. And it is then that the cycle comes to an end, Phil wakes up on February 3, the great wheel of life no longer stuck on Groundhog Day, and he lives the rest of his life with his dear Rita…in Punxsutawney, Pa.

As I reflect on this film, especially with regard to Phil’s original self-indulgence, I find that it provides a fascinating mirror for the modern age to which we find ourselves waking each morning. For the last few centuries, the Western world and increasingly the East has engaged in an unprecedented and frankly radical experiment in human civilization. We are in the midst of a collective social experiment that is attempting to construct a civilization based solely on scientifically observed cause and effect processes irrespective of any divinely-gifted transcendent meaning. Rooted in Enlightenment conceptions, it was argued that the enthronement of reason would finally realize what humans have hitherto for attempted to achieve through religious pursuits, but to no avail: wars would end, prosperity and technological advance would reign, and social and economic equality was finally within reach. The toll that we all had to pay for such promise, however, was that we collectively had to surrender the concept of meaning—what the Greeks called telos—as a reality divinely embedded in a created order, precisely because the created order has now been replaced with impersonal nature. But this was fine, we were told, since now we have the freedom to impart to life whatever meaning we as individuals choose to give it.

And so, it is to the self that our modern age has turned for meaning and life. Today, it is ubiquitously believed that the self needs to be cultivated and nurtured, and in this process of turning toward the self, there has emerged a sense of entitlement to self-actualization, and an accompanying right to charge with malice anyone or anything that would seek to stifle the self. The result of this collective self-indulgence is what researchers have called in a recent publication “The Narcissism Epidemic.” The authors of this study have noted “a single underlying shift in the American psychology: Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking.”

THE CULTURE WARS ARE A ROUT:

A sharp satire perfect for Critic readers (Robert Hutton, 2/06/24, The Critic)

American Fiction sits alongside last year’s hit novel Yellowface as a satire of the publishing industry’s — and the reading public’s — fetishisation of particular minority experiences. “They want a black book,” Monk’s agent tells him after publishers reject an earlier manuscript. “They have one,” replies Monk. “I’m black, and it’s my book.”

The film is merciless on all its subjects, including Monk, who loathes his publisher and nurses a vicious grudge against a more successful rival in ways that I and all my fellow authors will insist under torture that we do not recognise.

Wright, utterly absorbing, gives us a man who is grumpy but tender, perceptive but idiotic, satirical but pompous, dignified but ridiculous. The funniest moments come from Monk’s frustration at the fawning reaction to the book — “White people think they want the truth, but they don’t,” Monk’s agent tells him. “They just want to be absolved.”

JAILBIRD SWEETS:

CRIME NOVELIST MICHAEL CONNELLY ON THE ROLE OF JAZZ IN CREATING “BOSCH” (Peter Solomon, JANUARY 23, 2024, Jazz88.fm)

There’s a couple of musicians, one of whom you just mentioned, that I’ve noticed, you know, appear frequently in both the books and in the Amazon series as well. And it seems like there’s even some dialogue surrounding Art Pepper. I was wondering if you could talk about these two individuals Art Pepper and and Frank Morgan, and the way that you’ve experienced them and why you chose their music.

CONNELLY: Yeah, somewhere along the line, a publisher, a small press publisher, who did some, like limited editions on my books, and was a jazz guy said to me, probably the best book he had ever written (sic) (read) about jazz was Art Pepper and Laurie Pepper’s book, Straight Life. And so I got that book and I read it. And this goes back to what I already said. It’s so hard for me to describe it. I think it’s hard for any writer to describe music. But these were – that book was basically recordings Laurie Pepper made of of her husband Art Pepper, talking about the music he makes on the saxophone. And I just found that book to be, you know, a real head turner. And then it took me down in the rabbit hole into Art Pepper’s work and his connection to Los Angeles and he was this handsome guy who pretty much got destroyed by drugs, spent a lot of time in prison. And that worked for me on on two different levels because I had created this character Harry Bosch who didn’t know who his father was, and so he as a little kid, he built up this fantasy. His mother liked jazz and his – Harry Bosch’s joy from jazz is inherited from his mother, who also had a struggle in life. So I came up with this idea that Harry Bosch is white, Art Pepper’s white, Harry Bosch had this fantasy that that was my dad. I don’t know who my dad was. So he created a replacement. And it was this very cool cat named Art Pepper. And, you know, in the stories about him, you know, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section is a fantastic album, and the story behind it about how he was junk-sick, and had a broken reed, and all these things he overcame to make music that was so gorgeous, so beautiful, was important.

You know, like, it takes me about a year, back then it took me even longer – to write books. You know, you got to find things that plug you in. It’s a long haul, it’s climbing a mountain, and you got to find things that mean something to you that keep you plugged in. They might totally escape the reader. But you need to be able to climb that mountain and get up every day and all that, but you need something to keep you in. And so the music was a lot of what kept me in. And so that’s where the, you know, the Art Pepper connection, came into play. And later on, I got to meet Laurie Pepper and spend time with her and talk to her about Art. And, you know, it was all part of the research, but also part of my growing reacquaintance and love with jazz.

The other thing is, you know, I’ve been married a long time and my wife – (I’ll) say, Hey, I’m gonna write a book – you know, (she’s) like, good luck. You know, I had a daytime job where I had to spend a lot of hours. You know, being a newspaper reporter on the crime beat is not necessarily a nine to five thing. And so I was already spending a lot of time making a living as a journalist. And I had to make a deal. Luckily, I didn’t – we didn’t – have any kids at that time. But I made a deal with my wife that I need four nights a week to write (for) me to go to disappear. And we had a walk-in closet that I use as a writing room to disappear in there at night, and I went one of the weekend days. And I promise I’ll give this up if I don’t get published in X amount of time. And I blew that deadline, but she put up with me. But she was very much part of the team and aware of what I was doing and aware that I was this guy who you know, like going to see the Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton is now going to the Catalina Bar and Grill, which is a jazz club in LA and Hollywood. So she she knew what I was doing. And so one day she came into the closet with a copy of Newsweek magazine. And, and it was folded open to a full-page story on a guy named Frank Morgan. And the headline was something along the lines of “The Return of Frank Morgan” and it was about this guy and LA musician. At the time based I know he has a big connection to Minneapolis, he had his second album or first album in something like 27 years. Basically, it was almost three decades between his first and second album. And that was because a life of crime and drugs had landed him repeatedly in prison. And as at different times unreliable as a session guy. So it was a long time between the promise of this first album and the second album.

There wasn’t really the internet back then. This is probably in like ‘89 or ‘90. But I I went to the alternative newspaper that came out in LA and listed most of the jazz performances and coincidentally or lo and behold, he was playing three nights at the Catalina that week. And so I went to that I went to hear him play twice. He just became my guy. Yeah, something about his his sound really touched me beyond the guy doing research. Something about his music, and he spoke a lot between sets are between songs and he would talk about his life and the the path not taken or, the wrong path taken. And it just kind of struck me. And he played this one song and he was playing with George Cables, a pianist. They did a lot of work together and George wrote a song called Lullaby- it’s only a minute long, and it’s on Frank Morgan – well I think he recorded it three different times on albums. That song just kind of pierced my heart. There’s something that was sad about it, but also resolute like, you know, I’m gonna persevere basically.

We’re getting into how hard is to write about music. This is a song obviously without lyrics. It’s basically a piano and saxophone that’s it. And it’s just a beautiful song. And that kind of became my writing anthem. And I got the record and I would play that every morning, or every night or more realistically, every night before I started working on my Harry Bosch novel. Those two musicians were pretty much the most influential in the kind of forming of the character of Harry Bosch.

MOCKING iDENTITARIANISM:

In ‘American Fiction,’ An Excellent Depiction of a Politically Incorrect Professor (John Tamny, January 11, 2024, Real Clear Markets)

Some, conservatives in particular, will read this write-up and be interested in its portrayal of guilty white left wingers, the black professor who disdains their guilt, along with the film’s proper ridicule of white guilt as an excuse for the pursuit of diversity for the sake of diversity. It’s all there, including Monk being asked to serve on a prestigious book-prize panel that will decide the year’s best novel. You guessed it, the organization behind the prominent award wants a bit more “diversity.” Yes, conservatives will enjoy the film. Big time. It’s fun to see black people mock the same political correctness that members of the right have long similarly mocked.

At the same time, the view from this right-of-center writer is that while conservatives will surely laugh endlessly during this hilarious and extraordinarily well written film, that it’s brilliantly funny for everyone, including left-of-center types. There’s a family story that the great Kyle Smith viewed as filler, but that worked for me as a way of explaining Wright’s character, and the why behind Wright’s character, in entertaining fashion.

Additionally, it will be said here that conservatives shouldn’t walk out of the theater with too smug of a countenance. This is based on their own routine desire to feature black conservatives in their newspapers, magazines and television shows every time a racial situation reveals itself, the tendency of white conservatives to cheer a black person’s expressed conservatism regardless of whether it’s well-reasoned (I once witnessed a right-leaning black judge give a wholly unremarkable speech that ended with a standing ovation…), not to mention the growing desire of conservatives to deify the “canceled” members of their own flock (with book deals, awards, and well-paid jobs) in the way that dopey left wingers defity anything that’s “Black,” and no matter how ridiculous it is.

EVERYTHING GOOD:

PODCAST: Whit Stillman on ‘Metropolitan,’ a Christmas Movie (SONNY BUNCH, DEC 16, 2023, Bulwark Goes to Hollywood)


This week I’m thrilled to be joined by Whit Stillman, the director of, among other features, The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona, and Love and Friendship. He’s on the show today to discuss Metropolitan and the way it has been embraced as a classic Christmas movie, as well as the evolution of the indie film business over the last 40 years or so.

ALWAYS BET ON THE dEEP sTATE:

Frank Capra’s Timeless Vision of American Exceptionalism (Will Sellers, December 2, 2023, AIER)

The strain of populism so ingrained in the lives of Americans is perfectly reflected in Capra’s films. His focus was on the human actions of the silent majority of quiet, everyday people making decisions based on visions of simple moral clarity. He lifted the permanent things so often neglected compared to the temporary glitz and glamour of material gain. Each film contains a large dose of middle-American values magnified time and again against the traps and situations of a complicated impregnable bureaucratic world. And in each case, the little guy wins, and the big mules not only lose face but are publicly shamed into accepting, if not participating in their own defeat.

These films are in many ways a large mirror reflecting not only the tenor of the times but also the implicit impact of human nature struggling for freedom and self-determination. In short, people can see themselves in these films and identify with the characters. Everyone wants to see the characteristics of the white-hatted hero in themselves, but are reminded by conscience that they possess some of the traits of the villain too. Everyone hopes they will make wise and prudent choices when faced with decisions of moral consequence. Everyone in Capra’s films has a shot at redemption, but not every character accepts the offer; the developing conflicts that are resolved in favor of the common man are what make each film so entertaining.

THE CULTURE WARS ARE A ROUT:

‘The Curse’ Is a Vicious, Delicious Parody of Lefty Do-Gooderism (Claire McNear,
Nov. 13th, 2023, The Ringer)

I’d argue that the real tension, however, is in watching the Siegels’ elaborate value system—one that a certain cable news network might be inclined to describe as “woke”—crumple piece by piece. The Siegels represent a richly painted satire of conscientious do-gooderism: Whitney, for example, is the sort of person to sharply correct her husband when he says “homeless” instead of “unhoused” or to use clumsy Spanish to praise the food at a local restaurant.

It’s well meaning—or at least the Siegels think that it is. Much of the joy of The Curse is watching as the pair try and fail to square their bleeding-heart sympathies with the reality that those hearts might not be completely in the right place.

Accepting that you’ve won can be nearly as difficult as accepting loss.

ENTERTAINING A PURITAN NATION:

The Existential Foundations for Science Fiction (Tyler Hummel, 12/02/23, Voegelin View)

[M]ore challenging and artistically complex cinema is still being made and wildly embraced. In the past decade, a number of surprisingly challenging and thematically complex works of science fiction have broken out into mainstream popularity in a manner that would seem surprising, were it not that this small wave of intelligent films seems to have momentarily crested.


This cluster is the subject of SUNY Polytechnic Institute associate professor Ryan Lizardi’s new book Existential Science Fiction, which offers a narrow but meaningful unpacking of this strange trend. As he argues, between 2012 and 2019, audiences received numerous high-budget science fiction films that managed to be both audience-pleasing spectacles and high-minded examinations of the nature of identity and human connection—these including Prometheus, Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Annihilation, and Ad Astra.


Lizardi defines “existential” as “[what] it means to exist as a human being.” These films all come from different philosophical backgrounds, but what they share in common is a desire to muse on difficult questions about what it truly means to be human. These films, despite their science-fiction dress, are fundamentally about us, as human beings. As our author writes,

What is it about our current cultural landscape that fosters content dealing directly with questions about our identity, our memory, our continuity of self, but does so through the setting of science fiction and space exploration? These works seem to be leveraging the external trappings of the science fiction genre … to explore internal thematic ideas of reaching without and within ourselves to find a continuity of our individual and collective identities.

The trend doesn’t stop with cinema. He also identifies the video games Assassins Creed, Bioshock, Soma, and Death Stranding as high-concept science fiction games worthy of discussion and extends his study to include the television shows Legion and Westworld. Lizardi doesn’t necessarily thread the needle of this trend with any sort of theories as to why this trend happened. He acknowledges fully that Hollywood is a capitalist industry and that these trends are likely profit-driven more than intentional, particularly given the diversity of the artists and mediums behind this trend.

The point being where profit lies: the Culture Wars are a rout.

JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT INDIANA JONES WAS THE YEAR’S BIGGEST DISASTER:


Ridley Scott’s Napoleon: Accidentally a Comedy?: It’s a portrayal so undignified that I almost expected ABBA’s “Waterloo” to play over the credits. (David Klion, November 20, 2023, New Republic)


But then there are the dialogue and the performances, above all Phoenix’s, which suggest a different genre altogether: high camp. At the critics’ screening I attended, there were regular snickers at a film that isn’t being marketed as a comedy—and yet I suspect that laughter is the reaction Scott is going for. Napoleon doesn’t make a lot of historical arguments, but it does have a perspective on its title character: It sees him not as a genius or a modernizer or a meritocrat, but as an arrogant, vain, bratty, ultimately pitiful little autocrat whose zeal for greatness cost far too many men their lives.

Perhaps this is the perspective that Scott, an 85-year-old Englishman, learned in school; certainly the script (written by David Scarpa, who previously collaborated with Scott on All the Money in the World) seems to have more respect for the Duke of Wellington, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat who handed Bonaparte his final defeat, than it does for Bonaparte himself. Wellington, played by Rupert Everett, describes Bonaparte as ill-mannered “vermin” ahead of the Battle of Waterloo, and by that point the audience has every reason to agree, having watched Phoenix bumble his way through dozens of awkward and embarrassing set pieces.

Much of the awkwardness centers around Bonaparte’s relationship to Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), which provides most of the script’s dramatic heft. It’s no exaggeration to say that the film presents Josephine’s genitalia as the driver of a whole era of world history (10 minutes in, Kirby channels Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and from then on Bonaparte is under her spell). Phoenix’s Bonaparte is motivated entirely by overcompensation for sexual inadequacy, which is neither creative nor persuasive, but at least it scans in the context of the film. It’s far less clear what motivates Josephine—status? love? lust? money?—but she does make for a plausible object of desire, a haughty dominatrix who cuckolds Bonaparte into invading most of Europe.

Rather than Abba, the soundtrack should be Benny Hill. But the big problem is that when Mr. Scott realized he’d accidentally made a comedy he didn’t go all in on the slapstick. Instead of snickering at what he’s put on the screen we could be guffawing along with him.